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IBM plays with chameleon-like computer

IBM Research is experimenting with a device called the Meta Pad, designed to convert from a desktop machine to a handheld to a notebook and back again.

IBM Research is experimenting with a chameleon-like computing device called the Meta Pad, designed to easily convert from a desktop machine to a handheld to a notebook and back again.

Representatives of Big Blue's research arm demonstrated the gadget for CNET News.com on Wednesday. The 9-ounce, wallet-size Meta Pad aims to lighten the load for device-laden technophiles by providing a unit that contains all of a customer's software and applications, but only the most basic hardware, such as a hard drive.

The device serves as a core module--containing a processor, a hard drive, memory and a docking connector--that can be inserted into a number of different computer-hardware modules, such as a PDA or a desktop module, allowing it to play different roles.

"The idea is that this is the computer," researcher Ken Ocheltree said, holding the small black core, "and everything else is an accessory."

Ultimately, the device will be used to determine whether a single computer can tackle the job of storing and displaying all of a person's data and applications as well as managing personal communications. A person could tote the core back and forth between home and work or swap it between a desktop setting and PDA setting to go into the field. The Meta Pad can be switched from module to module without being rebooted.

IBM Research has designed a number of new mobile-computing form factors over the years, including a series of prototypes aimed at improving how people use information on the go.

Some of its latest include the wearable ThinkPad and a wristwatch computer. Of the prototypes that have made it to production, the "butterfly keyboard" design was wildly popular among ThinkPad buyers. Other designs, such as IBM's recently mothballed ThinkPad TransNote, were less successful.

Meta Pad will help "explore what happens when you can start taking your data with you wherever you go," Ocheltree said.

The Meta Pad also aims to solve some of the problems of PDAs, such as lack of computing power, file compatibility and the need to synchronize data with a PC, as well as make possible a more economical wearable computer.

Ocheltree demonstrated, for example, the core moving from a cradle where it was the equivalent of a desktop PC into a chassis with a 3-inch by 5-inch color screen, creating a PDA that could show videos and allow for Web surfing and document editing, among other things. The Meta Pad could also be attached to a hip harness and headset for use as a wearable computer or slotted into a case that simulates a ThinkPad notebook.

As a result, Meta Pad customers would be able to leave the office and bring with them only the core. At home, for instance, the core could be used with a cradle and display to surf the Web. In the field, the PDA module could be used for note taking. The notebook hookup could be used on a plane for typing a report. Hotels could offer set-top boxes that would allow Meta Pad to use the TV as its display.

"I think this is a potential path to show where the computer might go in the future," Ocheltree said. "We've separated the computing parts of the computer from the interface constraints."

The prototype Meta Pad core includes an 800MHz Transmeta Crusoe 5800 processor, chosen for its low-power properties, 128MB of RAM, a 10GB hard drive and Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. It also includes IBM's own handwriting-recognition software and a soft keyboard, allowing users to input data with a pen or type it in on the screen. In addition, the device can run IBM's ViaVoice speech-recognition software as well as any other Windows XP-compatible application.

But Big Blue has no immediate plans to offer the Meta Pad as a product, though IBM Research intends to begin field trials of the device in a few months. Licensing the device to customers is also being discussed.

If it were to be manufactured, the Meta Pad's price would be close to that of a low-end laptop computer--about $1,000. The hardware needed to build a cradle that would attach the device to a desktop display and keyboard would cost about $50, making it possible to offer such modules to consumers at a relatively low cost. PDA or laptop computer accessories would cost more, but likely not any more than a typical PDA or notebook, according to IBM.

Analysts agreed that the Meta Pad was an interesting idea, which could address many of the fundamental requirements of most computer users.

"You have everything you basically need with it," said Alan Promisel, analyst with IDC. "This eases the transition of going from one environment to the next."

However, despite the ease of changing contexts with Meta Pad, "Notebook PCs are still basically more usable," Promisel said.